I used to prefer NOT to think about aging at all. I associated aging with the loss of my looks, my strength and even my independence. I found it depressing and even a little frightening to see elders who were stooped, with shuffling gait. especially when they were unaccompanied.
I would pity them and secretly hope that I wouldn’t “end up like that”. I would say it like I was somehow passively stuck on a train going to an unknown and scary destination - somewhere I definitely didn’t want to go. A place described with words like: faded, stale, lonely, decrepit, useless, senile, pitiful, pathetic, helpless, frail, withered, worthless and obsolete.
Pexels image by Eternal Child
Our societal obsession with youth is no secret - we are bombarded with marketing messages that reinforce the glory of youth and feed our fears of aging. We literally buy into the fantasy that eternal youth is desirable, spending millions on products that claim to hide or even reverse aging. As if aging was a problem that must be denied or fixed, or both.
During my internship year in Hong Kong, I was constantly in the company of other interns and residents who were around the same age as my own kids. At the beginning of that year I had wanted so badly to fit in, to look the same as everyone else, to glide under the radar. But as that year progressed, I realized that was impossible. Everything from my appearance to my age to my accent proclaimed how different I was.
It was like being stuck on a train going somewhere that I definitely didn’t want to go
And somewhere in the middle of that year, I became proud to be different. I had gained years of experience and insight from working and teaching in academic medicine in another country, and even if the system refused to acknowledge that skillset, it showed up anyway. The patients saw it, the nurses saw it and eventually even the other doctors saw and responded to who I couldn’t help being.
Somehow just being in Hong Kong brought back all those critical voices that I had grown up with. I was too tall and too heavy, my skin too dark. I was too American. And now the agist judgments were layered on top of self image: I was too old and wrinkly with too much grey hair. I felt inadequate in so many ways: not skinny enough, not petite enough, not fair-skinned enough, not young enough.
I was self conscious and anxious to be me, with my body and at my age. Not all the time, but those voices were seldom quiet for long.
Being back in Hong Kong, I felt inadequate in so many ways
Ironically, I had lived in the US for almost 30 years and while there were definitely moments when I experienced racist microaggressions, it felt like I was more the foreigner in my hometown of Hong Kong. It wasn’t until I was willing to accept that I would always be an expat that life got easier.
As simple as that - a shift in thinking. None of the circumstances had changed. My height, weight, skin and language skills were all the same. When I changed my thought from: “I should be more like a local Hong Konger,” to “I am an expat Hong Konger,” I experienced a sense of relief from the unrealistic expectations I had been holding myself to.
And then I realized I could do the same with agist beliefs. What if I saw the marketing messages for what they are, i.e. simply advertisements intended to sell me on the glamor of youth and the hateful ugliness of aging? What if buying into those youth-oriented messages was setting me up for unrealistic expectations for the rest of my life?
Instead of thinking, “I should be more like a young person,” I could think, “I am an older person.” Accepting and embracing our age allows us to appreciate multiple alternate narratives to aging. After all, aging is an inevitable law of nature, like gravity. We are all aging every year, every day, every hour.
When we accept reality, we immediately feel a sense of relief from the struggle of resisting it. We, our own bodies, and time itself are no longer the enemy.
Road less traveled
I know and admire so many elder family members and friends who are active and independent, who continue to create value by helping others and contributing to society. I also know that they didn’t get to be that way by accident. Most had to be intentional and deliberate in choosing how they wanted to age, deciding what they wanted to do, how they wanted to be, and what mattered most to them. And they did so with the wisdom and experience gained in the first half of their lives.
I experienced a sense of relief from the unrealistic expectations I had been holding myself to
Role models represent what is possible when we choose a different path for ourselves. Some are those whose legacies endure over a lifetime of work like Anna Wintour, Jane Fonda. and Georgia O’Keefe. Others who gain our respect for finding their passion later in life and pursuing their dreams like Grandma Moses who started painting at age 78, or Julia “Hurricane” Hawkins who started competing in the Senior Games at age 80 and set world records in the 100 yard dash at the age of 104.
There is no stopping the time train taking us into the future, but we can decide proactively to set the direction. You get to decide if you are going to a place best described by words like vibrant, seasoned, wise, vigorous, patient, generous, dignified, mature, thoughtful, resilient, understanding, and experienced.
Aging on my terms
In setting this new course for myself, I needed to befriend my future old self. Rather than rejecting the wrinkles and grey hairs, I learned to embrace the laughter that created those creases and the richness of relationships built with grey hairs. I learned to be grateful and compassionate for this body that has borne and nourished my children, that has run marathons, and that can create amazing art.
By tapping into my heart’s desire, I have created a vision for the next decades that will guide me like a beacon, shining the path forward one step at a time. The truth is that we do of course want to live longer, enjoying our lives to the fullest and sharing it with those we love. And we can only do so on our own terms by being open to the possibility of becoming role models for our next generations, with commitment, planning.
As with my intern year, it took me a while to get my bearings on this journey of aging. And I’m glad to now be in a position to be proud to be different. I’m grateful to have the means to take care of myself so I can look the way I want. And I’ve gained such a deep appreciation for being able to age with grace, especially considering the alternatives.